Anxiety was always an invisible, heavy backpack that I couldn’t take off. Ten or so bricks that I carried around with me everywhere, but that no one else could see. I lived this way for much of my life, struggling (often privately) with the weight of anxious thoughts that fueled a large part of my every day life.
Side effects of anxiety for me were panic attacks, insomnia, severe jaw pain and migraines. It got worse when I went to college- with a huge lifestyle change and the stress of school, sometimes I completely shut down mentally and physically. These cycles of debilitating anxiety became a way of life for me, but I most often isolated myself and kept my condition hidden even from those who knew me well.
Some doctors in college told me I’d get better once I left the stress of school. But anxiety followed me everywhere I went: to my first job, when I moved in with my boyfriend (now my husband), and even when we got engaged and married.
After we got married, I got serious about caring for my mental health, primarily with the goal of reducing my mental health medication. (A note, before we even launch into the tools: I want to emphasize that this is my story and my story only. There is never anything wrong with medicating for mental health, this is a decision you make with your doctor! Always do you. There is nothing wrong with your path or with mine- we all take different roads to health and that is perfect!).
So, I ran my own experiment: what tools could I use to feel better every day? What worked, what didn’t, what was easy, and what wasn’t worth the hassle. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve developed my own anxiety toolbox that I use to manage my mental health. And here’s the best news- these tools WORK! I’ve been able to go off mental health medication, I have almost no jaw pain, haven't had a migraine in over 2 years, and now I rarely find myself unable to sleep. I live with a fraction of the anxiety that I endured for decades. My life and my mental health are not perfect, and remember perfection is not a goal because it doesn't exist. I'm a work in progress and this was never an overnight success. But I have the capacity for so much freedom now, which is something I didn’t know how to get before. For a long time, I honestly thought it was not even possible for me.
Here are my top tools for managing anxiety and all the way at the bottom I’ll put links to resources too:
1.) No shame
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! I repeat, there is nothing wrong with you. None of these tools will work if you feel bad about yourself for needing them. You have anxiety? SO WHAT? I’m so over feeling bad about myself for this and you should be too. Everyone has something. This is your homework in life and that is totally and completely OK. You are perfect, as is.
2.) Get your asana on the mat
Guys. YOGA. I’m absolutely obsessed. And I’m not talking the kind that is all about flat abs or losing weight or showing off fancy poses. I’m talking about getting into your body. Feel your heart beating and your breath coming in and out of your lungs and realizing that you’re alive right in this very second and that everything is going to be OK. That is yoga. Yoga brings us to the present moment, where anxiety can’t exist. When we practice on our mats, we can bring this energy more and more into our daily lives. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, an hour, whatever form you like (and there are so many: vinyasa, hatha, restorative, yin). And not to mention, anxiety does a number on our bodies physically and yoga can help unwind it.
3.) Smell ya later, anxiety
Scent is an incredibly powerful tool for changing your mental state, and essential oils are an affordable tool to capitalize on this. There's so much fascinating science on this- how different essential oils directly affect the nervous system and even modulate neurotransmitters. My favorites are lavender, anything citrus, and peppermint. Machines called diffusers diffuse the oil into the air of any room or you can put oils into roll-ons like perfume to use them on the go. I always keep roll-ons in a case in my work bag or purse. You can combine scent with almost any other technique for a boost in anxiety-reducing benefits.
4.) Tap into it (or tap out of it)
EFT (emotional freedom technique) or tapping combines ancient acupressure with modern psychology. You tap with your fingers on specific points in the body while almost talking about the problem or issue you have at hand. This one may sound crazy, but you can read yourself on the science of it. I promise to do a whole post on EFT because it is so worth a deep dive.
The tapping procedure systematically resets our nervous system and sends calming signals to the brain. When I originally read about this method, I was super skeptical. But tapping has become an everyday thing for me now, about 10 minutes every morning. It’s that essential. And the best part is, tapping is easy to learn, has no side effects, can go with you anywhere, and you don’t necessarily need to do it with a doctor or mental health professional (unless you are working with a severe trauma). This is accessible mental health care at its best! You can work independently or with a follow along video—I usually watch a video in the morning which makes it super easy to be consistent.
5.) Get poked
I’m totally afraid of needles but I absolutely love acupuncture. Acupuncture is not painful at all, it actually feels amazing. Another technique that sends super calming signals to your nervous system and allows your body to rest so it can work on any healing it needs to do. It’s adult nap hour! Seriously, we all live such chronically overworked and overstressed lives- acupuncture packs a serious healing punch wrapped up in a recliner nap package. I go to an affordable community clinic here in Frederick ($20 a visit) and there might be one in your area too!
6.) Find your people. Ditch anyone who isn’t with the program.
One of the biggest secrets to my improved mental health is surrounding myself with others who have healthy mental health habits and who care for themselves. Many of them struggle with anxiety too, but we all provide each other accountability and a kind and compassionate ear when we need to be heard. These are the people you can text when you are having an “impending doom” day (a term Kelly made up for when you wake up feeling like everything is doomed, something that will be familiar to anyone with anxiety) or having massive panic attack in the grocery store parking lot or at the mall (both of which have happened to me….). These are the people who won’t judge you when you’re down, but will help you get back up and encourage you to pull from your toolbox and move forward. Without the help of others, anxiety isolates. It festers and grows in loneliness and shame. The first time I could have an honest conversation with someone about mental health, was one of the pivotal moments of my life. It gave me hope that I wasn’t alone and that I could get better. And that is worth everything.
I hope these tools serve you and I hope you’ll develop (or add to) your own mental health toolbox. Pick one, pick them all, pick totally different ones than me! There’s no wrong way. The best tools for you are the ones that are easy to do, accessible, and affordable that you can practice often. Schedule them in advance, just like an appointment you can't miss.
Kelly and I hope Loving Lately is part of your mental health toolbox this season. Wishing you good health in every sense of the word: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual as we head into the holidays.
Yoga with Adriene
Plant Therapy Essential oils
The Tapping Solution
The Turning Point (Frederick, MD)
Google “community acupuncture” + your city to look for nearby clinics